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Left-of-center critics of the Federal Reserve’s inflation-fighting efforts keep insisting that risking recession to tame prices would unnecessarily harm the most vulnerable Americans and their struggling working class counterparts. Instead,  many have claimed that living costs can be cut sufficiently by forcing greedy corporations to charge less through windfall profits taxes, price controls, and the like.

And they’ve bridled in particular at charges that the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan (ARP) greatly worsened the problem by handing trillions of dollars of CCP Virus relief – and therefore purchasing power – to U.S. consumers well after economic growth had already rebounded strongly and unemployment had already nosedived.

Any development that can engulf the gargantuan American economy, like historically high inflation, almost by definition has many different causes. But anyone doubting the economic overheating role of the ARP should check out the graph below, which is found in this Reuters piece from over the weekend.

Reuters Graphics

The article adds to the evidence that still-towering inflation rates are devastating low-income Americans by super-charging the prices of that most basic of basics: food. But the graph makes clear as can be how the ARP contributed to the problem.

As it shows, prices of food (the darker line) began taking off just about the time that the ARP’s strings-free child tax credit payments started to be sent out (July 15, 2021, to be precise) – and not just to the needy, but to considerably better off households as well. Not so coincidentally, the share of American families with children reporting to U.S. Census Bureau surveys being “sometimes or often” short of food (the lighter line) started taking off soon after. And also noteworthy – these food price rises began many months before Russia’s February, 2022 invasion of Ukraine began playing its own major food inflation role. 

As the article also emphasizes, between 2020 and 2022, “as pandemic restrictions eased, so did the appetite for congress and some states to fund hunger prevention efforts.” But continuing federal purchases for “pantries, schools and indigenous reservations” were needed in the first place largely because food – not to mention other necessities – kept becoming so much more expensive.

The lesson here isn’t that no pandemic assistance should have been provided at all. After all, genuine suffering was widespread in its early phases and no one knew how long they would last. And the Fed’s left-of-center critics are correct that ongoing CCP Virus-related and Ukraine War-related energy supply disruptions have greatly boosted prices recently, too.

But as noted here previously, the supply- and demand-side roots of inflation are very closely related (because businesses can be relied on to continue raising prices as long as they can find enough buyers, and to cut them when customers start balking). Moreover, although in economists’ lingo, some prices are “inelastic” (because they’re for goods and services that are essential enough to prevent purchasing cutbacks even after major price increases), when they rise high enough, they can still foster lower prices for other purchases that are deemed less important.

Therefore anything, like big government checks, that fills consumer pockets will strongly tend to spur inflation sooner or later. So when help does need to be provided, it should be much more precisely focused on relieving genuine privation than pandemic relief was.

Even more important: The inflationary effects of supporting household consumption can be offset – and are best offset – by policies to support more production. When the Fed’s left-of-center critics start addressing defects in that supply side of the economy, rather than trafficking in gimmicks sure to exacerbate them, their complaints about excessive central bank monetary medicine will deserve a much bigger audience. In the process, they’ll be able to deliver lasting assistance to those whose plight they rightly emphasize.